Wild thing

Resultado de imagem para Fancy bird; a Voorburg-Cropper Pigeon. Photo by Richard Bailey

Fancy bird; a Voorburg-Cropper Pigeon. Photo by Richard Bailey

How and why did humans domesticate animals – and what might this tell us about the future of our own species?

Jacob Mikanowskiwrites about science, history and art, and his work has appeared in Prospect, The Awl and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Should humans continue to create species via new techniques – and technologies – of domestication?

One day in London in 1855, during an unusually cold winter, Charles Darwin went for a walk. As he strolled along the banks of the ice-bound Thames, he noticed some pigeons foraging for food. He began to wonder about their relationship to so-called ‘fancy pigeons’, the more exotic varieties favoured by fanciers and breeders. Was there an ancestor common to the nondescript blue-grey creatures on the riverbank, and those featured on the front page of Darwin’s newspaper that day, all puffed-up chests and improbable neck-ruffs?

Darwin was a pigeon-fancier himself and raised birds at his home in Kent. Observing these creatures closely, he became convinced that the various pigeon breeds descended from a single ancestor: the rock dove, or Columba livia. His fancy pigeons all interbred freely, and it seemed unlikely that a different species corresponded to each particular characteristic, none of which lived on in the wild. If man could breed a multiplicity of forms from a single thing, Darwin thought, perhaps nature could too. Domestication, for Darwin, was a laboratory for the study of evolution.

But what, exactly, is domestication? Darwin noticed that, when it came to mammals, virtually all domesticated species shared a bundle of characteristics that their wild ancestors lacked. These included traits you might expect, such as tameness and increased sociability, but also a number of more surprising ones, such as smaller teeth, floppy ears, variable colour, shortened faces and limbs, curly tails, smaller brains, and extended juvenile behaviour. Darwin thought these features might have something to do with the hybridisation of different breeds or the better diet and gentler ‘conditions of living’ for tame animals – but he couldn’t explain how these processes would produce such a broad spectrum of attributes across so many different species.

We’re still puzzling over the hows and whys of domestication. Advances in animal genetics, both ancient and modern, coupled with new techniques in archaeology, have illuminated at least some of the mechanisms behind this previously hidden transition. It’s deeply bound up with the origins of the so-called ‘Neolithic revolution’, when humans first turned to farming around 12,000 years ago. But the history of the human relationship to animals and agriculture is now being rewritten. Domestication, it appears, wasn’t a one-way street: new research suggests that species moved from wild to tame multiple times over their history, and that human agency played a far smaller role than previously believed. It’s also becoming clearer that, in the millennia we’ve spent changing animal genetics, they’ve been changing us in turn.

Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has identified three main routes to domestication. The ‘directed’ pathway is the most straightforward. It happens when humans deliberately set out to amplify some desired trait in a species, for example, breeding donkeys to be good for transport, or minks to have luxuriant fur – or, for that matter, fancy pigeons to look fancy. (Darwin marvelled at the ‘astonishing’ diversity of fancy pigeons in On the Origin of Species, from the hooded Jacobin to the immensely heavy Runt, the short-faced Tumbler to the magnificently berumped Fantail. ‘I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain, and have been most kindly favoured with skins from several quarters of the world,’ he wrote in 1859, adding that ‘not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder.’)…


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